College-bound students have a lot on their minds. Applications are one thing, but financial aid may seem like Swahili to first-timers. Many students are new to the game, but most parents are as well, especially if they didn’t attend college or have not applied for financial aid in the past.
Here’s the rundown on financial aid, with a few tips to boost success.
Types of aid include: federal or state aid, based on financial need; scholarships from public or private sources, based on academic or athletic abilities; loans from the government or private financial institutions that must be paid back with interest; grants from public or private sources; Work Study, a federal program that pays for a portion of school expenses.
The first step: FAFSA
All financial aid begins by filling out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The form requests information on income and assets from the student and his or her parents. Once complete, it goes to the state to determine eligibility for aid at that level. From there, the student gets a Student Aid Report (SAR); the report is also received by up to 10 schools chosen by the student. The schools then send the student an award letter, which includes government aid and any applicable school scholarships.
Financial aid offices will usually help students complete the FAFSA. There’s also something called “College Goal Sunday” that takes place every year. Participating colleges and universities will provide free assistance with completing the FAFSA at this event. Visiting www.micollegegoal.org can help provide dates and locations for this event each year.
Don’t confuse the FAFSA website with another website of a similar name, www.fafsa.com, however. This is a website that makes money off of scamming people; by posing as the official website of the financial aid package, they require students and their parents to pay money to fill out the FAFSA, which should never occur. The FAFSA is completely free to all applicants at the official website.
The FAFSA can be completed year-round but should be in by early March of the year to ensure that financial aid will be received, as it is awarded on a first come, first service basis. Since it’s based on the previous year’s income, the first of the year, when tax information is available, should be the target. June 30th is the deadline for that fall’s tuition.
The FAFSA must be completed each year in order to qualify, and even when students think they have too much income, there’s no harm in applying. It doesn’t cost anything to apply, but it might cost a lot of money in tuition.
Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert who publishes www.finaid.org, recommends applying even if you didn’t qualify the previous year. “Being rejected for federal aid is sometimes a prerequisite for private awards,” he writes.
Tips for success
Be open to work study: Indicate on the FAFSA that you’re interested in work study, a federal program through which you can receive a limited amount of money for school expenses, including books, tuition and living expenses. The work might even boost your future career. You’re not obligated to accept a work study if you check the box. It simply keeps your options open.
Search scholarships: Use online sources to find scholarships that match your abilities and interests. See the resource list below.
And those offers that come in the mail asking for $25 to apply for a scholarship? Proceed with caution. You shouldn’t have to pay money to get money, in most cases.
Don’t give up: “Leave no stone unturned,” LaFleur said. “File the FAFSA and then look into scholarships and other sources.
• Use online resources: Visit www.studentaid.ed.gov for information from the U.S. Department of Education. For a guide to financial aid sources, check www.finaid.org. Search scholarships at www.fastweb.com.